Lee Bowyer is back and has added his voice to those claiming West Ham United can mount a realistic challenge for a top-seven finish this season.
On Saturday 10 November, Bowyer walked off the pitch at Pride Park after scoring twice and making another in a 5-0 rout of Derby County. The man of the match display appeared to come at a short-term price as a fifth yellow card of the campaign activated a one-match suspension but there was no indication that a troublesome hernia injury was to sideline him for much longer.
Two months later and the 1-0 FA Cup defeat and 1-1 league draw last week at Manchester City were Bowyer's first starts since that Derby day. Unsurprisingly, the 31-year-old midfielder is delighted to be back in the thick of it for West Ham United - although he is also not complaining about a free weekend coming up. "I was off for eight weeks and I will be glad for this rest," he told WHUTV. "I got a bit tired towards the end."
While he was away, his team-mates had helpfully positioned the club into the top half of the table and, after Sunday's stylish showing, Bowyer sees no reason why they cannot finish the season with even higher aspirations. "We have got to be pushing for Europe now," he said. "That's top seven - we are seven points off that. You never know there is a long way to go yet. If we keep pushing, we might just nick a place."
Bowyer knows all about what it takes to secure continental competition having played for Leeds in the 2000/01 Champions League semi-finals. Certainly the club more than held their own against City, the team currently occupying that seventh spot, and will take plenty of confidence from their dominant displays against a side that have earned many plaudits this campaign.
"Obviously it was disappointing not to come away with the three points [on Saturday] but we will take the point, especially after the disappointment on Wednesday," he added. "Over the two games we were the better side. It was just the final ball at times that let us down and stopped us taking all three points."
Refusing to dwell on the contentious goal scored by Darius Vassell, that many thought was offside - "sometimes you get them decisions, sometimes you don't" - Bowyer added: "We showed good character. We moved well and we could have had another two or three goals. It was a good solid team performance. One point is better than none."
In terms of the top-flight table come Sunday 11 May, only a fifth-place finish automatically brings UEFA Cup football but the sixth and seventh spots can become open to the European competition if the FA Cup finalists and League Cup winners respectively also finish inside the top four.
In truth, worrying about such ifs and buts is some way off for the Hammers, who will nevertheless get a true test of their credentials when Liverpool arrive a week today. While the Hammers will have been resting up, the Reds will have played two full matches - including Monday night's taxing 2-2 home draw against Aston Villa - a fact not lost on Bowyer. "We can prepare now properly for Liverpool," he said. "It is a home game and you never know what might happen."